Andrew Vine: The hard journey to recovery for pit communities

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DESPERATION hung in the air of the miners’ welfare clubs of South and West Yorkshire as thickly as the men’s cigarette smoke.

The industry that had defined the language, lifestyle and landscape of vast areas of our county, ran our mills and fired our forges, paid our bills, heated our homes and kept our lights on was dying.

Coal had been king, and when toppled from its throne fell hard, dragging thousands into a twilight of poverty.

The men in the welfare clubs knew they were watching the death throes of not just their livelihoods, but the way of life of communities forged over the course of a century or more.

Yet this was a social calamity that has too often been overlooked, eclipsed in the collective memory by the bitterness and political undercurrents of the year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85.

It began 30 years ago tomorrow in protest at plans to shut 20 pits spread throughout the country and became a national dispute.

But the real reckoning for coal that plunged mining communities into despair came not in the pitched battles between pickets and police at Orgreave or Cortonwood, nor in the uneasy aftermath of the return to work, but seven years after the end of the strike.

Coal’s blackest day was on October 30, 1992, when the then Trade and Industry Secretary, Michael Heseltine, announced the closure of 31 pits. The strike had been a grievous wound for the industry, but this was the mortal blow.

There was no greater hate figure in Yorkshire’s coalfield communities than Margaret Thatcher, so it is ironic that she was not the Prime Minister who finally did for coal, having been unceremoniously dumped from office by her own party two-and-a-half years earlier. That dubious distinction belongs to her successor, John Major.

To know those coalfields in the early 1990s was dispiriting and desperately sad. The old, iconic names of pits that were bywords for gruelling and sometimes dangerous work, and a breed of tough men who descended the shafts and came back up black-faced and exhausted became instead shorthand for deprivation.

Grimethorpe, Houghton Main, Sharlston, Bentley, Markham Main, Silverwood, Kiveton Park and all the rest died one by one in those years, each accompanied by a gloomy little ritual.

Villagers would gather to watch the pithead wheels stop turning for the last time as the final shift came up, and then the National Union of Mineworkers’ branch standard would be carried out in a gesture of defiance.

And then it was into the welfare to wonder what the future held now the pit that had sustained generations was gone.

The statistics were almost too much for the now ex-miners to take in. In 1983, the last full year before the strike, Yorkshire had 56 pits employing 59,300 people. Before their children were out of their teens, it would be a fraction of that.

The tragedy that befell the coalfields was a vast mosaic of individual stories of desperation. Pit villages had their own atmosphere, their own way of doing things, their own community spirit and values.

They were close-knit and neighbourly, with little crime, their cohesion defined by the pit that not only put food on the table but drove their social lives as well.

And once the pits shut, it all began to fall apart. Smart streets and tidy gardens became scruffy, terraces were boarded up, mortgages were defaulted on and homes repossessed, shops and garages shut. Marriages broke down and children suffered under the pressure of hardship. Drug abuse, which follows deprivation as surely as night follows day, began to appear.

There simply was no other work, and as hopelessness tightened its grip, it became too much for some to bear. A parish priest in the Dearne Valley told me than for a decade, he had never been called on to conduct a funeral for somebody who had taken their own life. Then in one year, he had conducted two.

Understandably, the bleakness of the outlook was underpinned by bitterness. The pit villages were convinced this was a Tory payback for the strike, not least because beneath the feet of the unemployed lay millions of tons of coal. The power stations of the Aire Valley were still voraciously hungry for it, but instead of coming from a few miles away, it was being freighted halfway around the world from Russia, China, Indonesia and Colombia.

The good news is that what were once the Yorkshire coalfields have remade themselves. There is new industry there, and jobs. Villages have shaken off their desperation, and parkland now covers spoil heaps.

Here and there, a section of pithead wheel has been preserved as a monument to what had once been. But it has been a hard journey that extracted a terrible human cost and left scars. Those villages can never quite be as close-knit and neighbourly as they once were. Something other than a hard, demanding industry that for so long powered Yorkshire’s ambition and prosperity died the day the pits were killed.